I mentioned it in my first post on this passage that when we come to verse 20, a different set of important, exegetical and doctrinal issues confront us. Though these issues are different than those confronted in verses 17-19, they are no less consequential for the proper meaning and proper application of the Sermon on the Mount as a whole. What are they? Here are some of the issues which must now be faced.
- What is meant by entering the kingdom of heaven in verse 20?
- To what does the righteousness which is the indispensable prerequisite to entering the kingdom refer? Specifically, is the imputed righteousness of Christ mainly in view? Or is the imparted righteousness worked into the believer mainly in view?
- If it does not refer to the imputed righteousness of Christ, how is the charge of legalism to be avoided and to what spiritual or doctrinal reality is the passage pointing?
- What is the proper approach to the meaning and interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount as a whole? What is the pivotal insight provided by this passage to interpretation of the Sermon on the Mount as a whole?
- More specifically, does this passage—since it immediately precedes the contrasts of verses 21-48—shed light on the meaning and intention of those contrasts? I speak specifically of the language repeated many times in those verses: “You have heard that the ancients were told … But I say to you.” (Cf. Matt. 5:21-22 NAU)
You remember that we are working through Matthew 5:17-20 under the theme we determined at the beginning of this blog series. That theme concerns Jesus’ relationship to the Old Testament Scriptures. Those Scriptures are described in the way typical of the New Testament as the law and the prophets. Jesus’ relation to them is described both negatively and positively. It is not to abolish but to fulfill them. Jesus comes to bring the Scriptures to their intended goal or predestined destination. This relationship of Jesus to the Old Testament is the underlying theme of the entirety of verses 17-20.
The development of the passage rolls out of this theme. With this exposition laying our foundation, we come to the fourth major heading in the passage …
- The Serious Implication of This Relationship
Verse 20 speaks to how weighty the implications are of properly understanding that Jesus came to fulfill the Old Testament Scriptures. If He came to fulfill them, then as verse 19 has asserted we must also do and teach them. And what is at stake in this response to the law? Verse 20 says: “For I say to you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Verse 20 requires us answer three serious questions.
The first question is this: What does verse 20 mean by entering the kingdom of heaven?
There is, of course, a sense in which in this life men may enter the kingdom of heaven. John 3:5 is familiar: “Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” There in John 3:5, it appears, we have an entrance into the kingdom provided by the new birth. But students of the New Testament know that there is a future dimension of the kingdom of God which is not entered until Christ returns. I am convinced that it is this future entrance into the kingdom of which Jesus is thinking. Let me provide you some of the reasons why I think this.
- Let me point out, first of all, that the entrance into the kingdom spoken of here in verse 20 is put in the future tense. Jesus says, “ … you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” This is most naturally taken to refer to a future entrance into the kingdom of heaven.
- Let me point, secondly, to the closest parallel passage to Matthew 5:20. It is Matthew 7:21. Look at it please. Matthew 7:21 reads: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” The parallels are remarkable; and the eschatological character of the entrance into the kingdom is clear.
- Let me point, thirdly, to the fact that the blessings promised to the obedient disciples of Christ in the Beatitudes are in their full meaning future and eschatological throughout. Among blessings like inheriting the earth and seeing God (which are clearly eschatological) is mentioned twice the kingdom of heaven. Cf. Matthew 5:3-10—especially verses 3 and 10.
- Let me point, fourthly, to the next mention of the kingdom in the succeeding context. That is Matthew 6:10: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.” This is a prayer for Jesus to return and cause the will of the Father to be done perfectly on earth.
These are some of the reasons why I am convinced that it is this future entrance into the kingdom of which Jesus is thinking.
The second question is this, What is the righteousness required to enter the kingdom in the last day?
Here there are two alternatives. We might think of the imputed righteousness of Christ as the reference. This doctrine of the imputed righteousness of Christ is a glorious truth. The Bible certainly teaches that we are justified initially and fully by the imputed righteousness of Christ. This righteousness is the whole basis of our hope of heaven. Our hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness. We dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
But the Bible teaches that Christ’s disciples are given and thus are also characterized by the imparted righteousness of Christ. This righteousness works an actual change in their characters and conduct. It is not the ground or basis for our future entrance into the kingdom of heaven. It is, nevertheless, a necessary prerequisite for that entrance. Only those whose imparted righteousness bears witness to their imputed righteousness will successfully pass the scrutiny of the great day of judgment. Cf. Matthew 25:31-46 especially verses 34-45. This, I believe, is the righteousness necessary to enter the kingdom of heaven of which Jesus speaks. It is what Matthew 5:20 references.
What is the evidence for this?
- The closest uses of righteousness clearly refer to this imparted righteousness. The following four verses are every reference to righteousness in the Sermon on the Mount.
Matthew 5:6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Matthew 5:10 “Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Matthew 6:1 “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.
Matthew 6:33 “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
Each of these texts clearly refer to an imparted or practical righteousness!
- Confirming the thrust of these parallel uses of righteousness is the key parallel passage in the Sermon on the Mount we looked at earlier. With regard to entering the kingdom, Matthew 7:21 reads: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven will enter.” Who enters the kingdom? In Matthew 7:21 it is those and those only who do the will of My Father. Doing of the will of the Father in that context is clearly a matter of practice and imparted righteousness. Cf. the whole surrounding context in Matthew 7:13-24.
I will say more about this when I come to application. The whole emphasis of Matthew 5:20 is on the practical righteousness which changes the character and conduct of the disciples of Christ. While I do not want to wholly dismiss the importance of the imputed righteousness of Christ in our text and in the Sermon, that is clearly not what is front and center in Matthew 5:20.
The third question is this, How does this righteousness exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees?
The Guiding Assumption
Let me state an assumption which guides me here. It is something which I think should be obvious to you as soon as I state it. What Jesus means by the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees is epitomized in the summaries of their teaching which Jesus gives in Matthew 5:21f. and immediately follow verse 20. The righteousness which exceeds their righteousness is found in Jesus’ contrasting presentation and interpretation of Old Testament law’s requirements. Cf. Matthew 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44.
The Consequent Implication
The righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees was an external and formal righteousness which left untouched and unfulfilled the heart requirements of God’s Old Testament law. It was concerned only with actual murder and not with heart murder. It was only concerned with physical adultery and not heart adultery. And the same heartless externalism which leaves the inward man untouched can be shown to be true of each citation of the Pharisaic and scribal interpretation of the law contained in these verses. True righteousness is the real, internal, and heart righteousness required of a true relationship with God.
The Crucial Question
But was this heart righteousness actually required in the Old Testament law? Is it a righteousness only required in the kingdom and not in the Old Testament? Or were the Pharisees perhaps right in their externalistic interpretation of what the law required? No, this righteousness which characterizes Christ’s true disciples was all along required by the Old Testament. Permit me to cite Pastor Jeff Smith to show this:
… everything Jesus teaches in this chapter is also taught in the O.T. In other words, he’s not teaching anything new here. …. Take, for example, this one we just looked at. Jesus says in verse 43, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor’ and hate your enemy.” Then he says, verse 44, “But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.” Now is what Jesus teaches here something new that’s not found in the O.T.? No, this is not anything new. It’s in the O.T. that we read in Exodus 23:4-5, “If you meet your enemy’s ox or his donkey going astray, you shall surely bring it back to him again. If you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under his burden and you would refrain from helping it, you shall surely help him with it.” It’s in the O.T. that we read, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles: lest the Lord see it, and it displease him” (Prov. 24:17-18). Proverbs 25:21, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat: and if he is thirsty give him water to drink.” …. Jesus is not contrasting his teaching with the O.T., or correcting O.T. moral directives. He is liberating them from the shackles to which the Scribes and Pharisees had them bound. He is freeing them from the perversions of Rabbinic tradition. Consider verses 27-28, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’. But I say to you that whoever looks at a women to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Now the law does say, “You shall not commit adultery.” So is the contrast here between what the O.T. law taught and what Jesus teaches? No, the real problem here is the way the Pharisees applied this law. They said, “You shall not commit adultery”, but that’s as far as they went. Their whole approach to the law was external. As long as you don’t actually commit the act of adultery, you’ve kept the law. And so, Jesus says, “But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Is Jesus correcting Moses, or is he correcting the Scribes and Pharisees? …. If that’s a correct interpretation of what Jesus is doing here, then that would mean Moses never taught that adultery was anything more than an external physical act …. Is that true? Of course not, it’s not true at all. The very same ten commandments that say in the seventh commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” go on to say in the tenth commandment, “You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife.” And it’s in the O.T. that we read words like these concerning the strange woman, “Lust not after her beauty; neither let her take you with her eyelids.” (Prov. 6:25) Provers 7:25, “Let not your heart turn aside to her ways.” Jesus is not teaching anything new here. He is reinforcing and applying what was already taught in the O.T.
The Final Conclusion
It is by addressing the heart and transforming the heart that the peculiar righteousness Christ imparts to His people is distinguished. It is in this way that it exceeds the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees. But in addressing the heart and transforming the heart, it is only carrying out what the Old Testament law had all along required.
Applying the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount to the need for imputed righteousness of Christ while ignoring its emphasis on imparted righteousness is a drastic misunderstanding of the meaning and application of Jesus’ teaching.
I cannot say it better than “the Doctor.” Listen to Martyn Lloyd-Jones as he speaks of the right interpretation and application of the Sermon on the Mount. The following is from his Sermon on the Mount, pages 207-208:
Now let me ask a question that is probably in your mind at this point. What then is our Lord teaching? Is He teaching salvation by works? Is He saying that we have to live a life better than that of the Pharisees in order to enter the kingdom? Patently not, because ‘there is none righteous, no, not one.’ …. Our Lord did not come to teach justification or salvation by works. ‘Very well,’ says the opposite school; ‘is He not teaching that salvation is by means of the righteousness of Christ alone, so that it does not matter at all what we may do? He has done it all and therefore we have nothing to do.’ Now that is the other extreme, and the other error. That, I argue, is an impossible exposition of this verse because of the little word ‘for’ at the beginning of verse twenty. …. He is emphasizing the practical carrying out of the law. That is the whole purpose of the paragraph.
This is very well said by the Doctor, but it brings me to a second practical lesson.
Though the imputed righteousness of Christ is not in the foreground of the Sermon on the Mount, it is certainly in the background of the Sermon on the Mount.
I put it this way because I am searching for a way to illustrate the proper approach to the Sermon with regard to the righteousness of which it speaks. I have said that it speaks mainly and properly of the imparted righteousness of Christ. But I do not want to say that there is no reference indirectly to the imputed righteousness of Christ.
The illustration which occurs to me and is helpful to me is that of a picture that you might take of your family visiting the Grand Canyon. You pose your family in such a way that the grandeur of the canyon is in the background (and, of course, you pose them not too close to the edge)! Thus, in the foreground of the picture is yourself, your wife, and your four children. They are in the foreground. You want this picture of them to remember always the wonderful trip you took with them to the Canyon. But in the background is the Grand Canyon. It is the glorious context and majestic milieu of the picture.
This is how I picture for myself the relationship of the imparted righteousness of Christ to the imputed righteousness of Christ in the Sermon on the Mount. The imparted righteousness of Christ is in the foreground, but in the glorious background of the picture is the imputed righteousness of Christ.
That is my illustration, but how can I prove to you that the imputed righteousness of Christ is in the background overshadowing all?
- It is there in the statement of Matthew 5:11: “Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.” Blessed persecution is only persecution, Jesus says, because of me! Note the focus on Christ Himself.
- It is there in the very thematic verse of the passage which speaks of Christ fulfilling the law. Yes, this means that He enables His people to fulfill it. But they are enabled to fulfill it because He Himself has fulfilled it and brought to redemptive-historical fulfillment all the types and shadows of the Old Testament. They are enabled also to fulfill it because He first kept the law Himself perfectly as the atonement for their sins.
- It is there in the picture of the judgment in Matthew 25. Yes, there is imparted righteousness in the righteous and the lack of it in the unrighteous. But what is its significance? What is its focus? Its focus is Christ. Its significance is that presence shows us a relationship with Christ and its absence no relationship with Christ.
Yes, the imputed righteousness is gloriously present in the background of the Sermon on the Mount.
Imputed righteousness is the sole ground of our right to heaven. Imparted righteousness is no part of that ground or basis.
It is important for me to state and state plainly that the righteousness which is the sole ground and basis of our hope of heaven is the imputed righteousness of Christ. That is not the chief meaning or application of our passage, but it is the truth of many other passages. In the timeless phrases of Luther, we are saved by an alien righteousness; and, as he says again, In myself outside of Christ I am a sinner. In Christ outside of myself I am a righteous man. It is in this righteousness of Christ that our hope of heaven stands. Luther reminds us of another truth which must not be forgotten.
The imputed righteousness of Christ is the root and spring of the imparted righteousness of His people.
This is the meaning of Paul’s insistence in Romans 6:1-11 that if we have died with Christ, we will be freed from the tyranny of sin and death. This is the meaning of Romans 6:14 when it says that sin will not have dominion over us because we are under grace. It is the cross that penetrates the barrier of the justice and wrath of God which separates us from the Spirit of God. The cross and the righteousness of God it reveals is the conduit by which the springs of imparted righteousness flow to us. It is faith resting in Christ which alone leads to faith working through love.
The imparted righteousness of Christ, though true and real, is in this life imperfect.
We are not to assign to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount the idea that moral perfection characterizes His people in this life. This is the mistake of those who consign the Sermon on the Mount to a future millennium. Even here in the Sermon, that notion is contradicted by the fact that the blessed disciple is poor in spirit and hungers and thirsts after righteousness. On the one hand, Luther affirmed what we must believe that the Christians is always and at the same time a sinner, a penitent, and a righteous man. He also said: For inasmuch as the saints are always aware of their sin and implore God for the merciful gift of his righteousness, they are for this very reason also always reckoned righteous by God. But on the other hand, he also affirmed the truth of our text:
- We must therefore most certainly maintain that where there is no faith, there also can be no good works; and conversely, that there is no faith where there are no good works.
- Now after that a man is once justified, and possesseth Christ by faith, and knoweth that he is his righteousness and life, doubtless he will not be idle, but as a good tree will bring forth good fruits. For the believing man hath the Holy Ghost, and where the Holy Ghost dwelleth, he … stirreth him up to all exercises of piety and godliness …
This leads me to another application …
No one who lacks the imparted righteousness of which Matthew 5:20 speaks may claim to have imputed righteousness.
Entrance into the kingdom of heaven and the Day of Judgment requires a practical or imparted righteousness which exceeds the external and formal righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees as a prerequisite to enter the kingdom of heaven. This is the unavoidable teaching of our text. It is the unavoidable teaching of Matthew7:21. It is the unavoidable teaching of Matthew 25:31-46. To confuse the issue by applying passages like this to imputed righteousness is dangerous and confusing.
The contrasts of Matthew 5:21-28 contrast the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees (and their faulty understanding of the Old Testament) with the true meaning and requirements of the Old Testament law as taught by Jesus.
They are not contrasts between the requirement of the Old Testament law and the requirements of the New Testament law. The teaching of New Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism that the Old Testament law and the Ten Commandments have been rescinded and a new righteousness of the kingdom put in their place runs exactly contrary to the teaching of Jesus here that He fulfills that law and does not annul or abolish it. Their errors concerning the law are fundamentally wrong, mutilate God’s instruction manual for the Christian life, dangerous to the souls of men, and expose them to the threat of verse 19—being called least in the kingdom of heaven.
In Jesus’ contrasting interpretation of the moral law there are deep insights into the proper hermeneutic to be used in understanding the requirements of the law of God. Pastor Jeff lays out some of them very clearly. I believe they are very similar to the hermeneutic used in the exposition of the Ten Commandments in the Larger and Shorter Catechisms and some of the historic, Baptist catechisms.
Dr. Sam Waldron is the Academic Dean of CBTS and professor of Systematic Theology. He is also one of the pastors of Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Owensboro, KY. Dr. Waldron received a B.A. from Cornerstone University, an M.Div. from Trinity Ministerial Academy, a Th.M. from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. From 1977 to 2001 he was a pastor of the Reformed Baptist Church of Grand Rapids, MI. Dr. Waldron is the author of numerous books including A Modern Exposition of the 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith, The End Times Made Simple, Baptist Roots in America, To Be Continued?, and MacArthur’s Millennial Manifesto: A Friendly Response.